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North Korea's Giant Firecracker
Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Taepodong
Timothy Savage (yamanin)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-06 10:04 (KST)   
The Taepodong-2, which North Korea launched in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, has been described as an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). However, the terminology is inaccurate. To qualify as an ICBM, the missile would have to be actually capable of reaching another continent. When it explodes 40 seconds after launch, it's nothing more than a giant firecracker.

Lost in the hyperbole over North Korea's attempted launch of a Taepodong-2, along with a number of shorter range missiles, on Wednesday morning was one vital fact: the test was an abject failure. It was even more of a spectacular bust than North Korea's last failed missile test -- the launch of the Taepodong-1 in 1998. In that instance, at least the first two stages were successful before the third stage crashed and burned. The Taepodong-2, by comparison, barely got off the ground.

Peter Hayes, Executive Director of the Nautilus Institute, notes that the United States requires 40 flight tests before it deems a missile system operational. "At the current DPRK's test rate, two tests over eight years, assuming that the system ever works, it will take the DPRK 160 years to reach a tested missile system." And that doesn't even address the question of whether North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear warhead to a small enough size to fit it on top of its missiles that don't really work anyway. Those of you on the West Coast of the United States can sleep soundly tonight.

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Perhaps the most amusing part of the whole fiasco was the apparent decision by North Korea to time the launch with the launching of the Discovery space shuttle. The irony of North Korea countering America's latest mission on its highly advanced space program by demonstrating that it still lacks the basic rocket technology that the Soviet Union pioneered 50 years ago appears to have been lost on most observers. The high school equivalent would be trying to counteract the rich kid's new Lexus by showing up with your rusty old Schwinn, only to have the wheel fall off.

Actually, the test was a boon for American intelligence. Instead of having to guess how far along North Korea's ICBM program is, they now know -- not very. Furthermore, the U.S. was lucky that the test failed so early, as it saved them the dilemma of having to try to shoot it down with its missile defense (MD) system.

Given MD's own spotty record of testing, there was a very high chance that such an attempt would fail, and then call into question the administration's hype of the multi-billion dollar system. On the other hand, if they didn't even try to shoot it down, they'd open themselves to criticism for its failure to respond to this "dangerous provocation." As a famous coach once said of the forward pass, there are only three possible outcomes, and two of them are bad.

Nonetheless, CNN was filled with breathless commentary about whether George W. Bush was doing enough to protect the American public from North Korea, even though the American public would have to be hanging out in North Korean airspace to be in any actual danger. Congressman Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, kept repeating over and over again how great it is that Bush is spending US$9.1 billion per year on a missile defense system that may not work against a North Korean threat that has yet to materialize.

But the danger from North Korea is not the rickety missiles that explode soon after launch. The real threat is the growing stockpile of plutonium that North Korea has been getting. The nuclear weapons manufactured by this plutonium can find their way into a U.S. city by many other, far less technically advanced means than an ICBM -- such as smuggled aboard a container ship.

So what has the Bush administration done in its six years to address North Korea's plutonium stockpile? Most notably, they scuttled the Agreed Framework, the one restraint on North Korea's nuclear program. Since then, North Korea has restarted its 5 MW reactor at Yongbyon, and is now happily producing an additional 2-3 bombs worth of plutonium every year.

North Korea's military threat, real as it is, pales in comparison with the military capabilities of the United States. The U.S. can saturate North Korea with enough nuclear weapons to kill every living creature larger than a cockroach within less than half an hour. That's not to mention the vast American advantages in conventional weaponry, logistics, surveillance technology, fuel, etc. etc.

The problem of how to deal with North Korea's missile test is not a military problem, it's a policy problem. The U.S. has had ample time to develop a viable policy approach to North Korea's nuclear program. Instead, the administration has vacillated between a half-hearted engagement policy that was always too little too late, and a hard-line stance based on the vague hope of finding the proper measure of sanctions that will cause the Kim Jong-il to capitulate, if not outright collapse.

When Bush took office in January 2001, he undertook a review of North Korean policy. It was estimated at the time that it might take as long as six months to complete the review and institute the new policy. Instead, it's been six years, and we're still waiting.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage

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